Dean's Update

December 3, 2021 - Aron Sousa, MD


This week I have been struck and saddened by senseless, preventable deaths in our communities. The horrific school shooting in Southeast Michigan resulting in four deaths returns our nation to the public health challenges of guns, mental health, and school safety. For now, nearly all COVID-19 deaths and those resulting from hospital overcrowding are preventable through straightforward public health measures like masking and vaccination. In a similar way, the tragic death of an MSU student last week brings to my mind the public health challenges of alcohol and hazing on a college campus. (News reports suggest alcohol and hazing were involved but neither has been proven.)

The deaths of students are excruciatingly heart-rending, especially for parents and guardians who have already spent years imagining the worst. I don’t think they have a choice but to have that nightmare – it seems to switch on when children enter your life and to persist forever. These losses change families and friends forever. I also feel for the first responders who went to the scenes of these tragic deaths, and for our faculty, residents and students who cared for them when they got to the hospital and ICU. Far too many in our communities have suffered these losses before, and, of course, these events only bring back their grief and pain. You can find resources for help here and here.

While we need to recognize and respect the pain of these loved ones, shouldn’t we also be angry at these preventable deaths? I don’t mean for us to be angry at people – heavens, there are already too many people angry at other people – we need to be angry at the problem while being understanding of the people who do not yet see the costs of the problems or the value of the solutions.

These deaths were all preventable if we were willing to take the steps to prevent them:

  • Plenty of countries do not have school shootings like we do in the US.
  • Only a small minority of student organizations have members who die with alcohol.
  • People get vaccinated and wear masks and reduce the COVID-19 risk to themselves and those around them.

I think nihilism may be our biggest challenge. Each of these problems feels too big, too tied to our cultures, too political to be solved. Each problem is well known, lines are drawn, and leadership feels diffused or distracted. That said, we are a university, we have people with expertise in each of these topics, and the work we do matters. That is why we do public intellectual work, and why student and faculty advocacy works and should be valued academically.

Interestingly, some of these problems are amenable to systems of quality of care and quality improvement. Frankly, if we look out for each other, some of these preventable deaths should never happen. The concept of a “zero goal” or a “never event” comes right out of quality improvement efforts in health care. In fact, our partners at Henry Ford pioneered this kind of effort with their program to cut suicide among their patients to zero. Initially zero suicides seemed like an outrageous, unachievable goal. It took them several years of improving their programs, getting angry at the problem and not the people, but they did achieve their goal. Now, there is a worldwide zero suicide movement. (Just another plug for MSU and Henry Ford, two of the key leaders in the program are MSU alumni, Catherine Frank, MD, (CHM ‘85) and Brian Ahmedani, PhD, (Social Work ’06 and CHM Epi ’10). Our people can make progress on seemingly insolvable problems.

To support the work of students, who will become ground-breaking innovators like Drs. Frank and Ahmedani, the primary fundraising goal of the college is scholarships. My deepest thanks to those who gave this week for Giving Tuesday. We surpassed our goal of $10,000 for the day and raised $17,000. Thanks to all you who support in whatever way you can.

Serving the people with you,


Aron Sousa, MD
Interim Dean

Read more from the Dean's Update archive